Okay folks, this week Bookaholicanonymous has a special treat for you, get ready to visit your dark side with horror fiction author Neil D’Silva. Horror is a genre that both attracts and repulses at the same time, we asked Neil questions that might be in your mind too. His stories have found universal appeal and acclaim in both the literary world as well as the world of visual media. Most of his books have ranked on the Amazon India Horror #1 position, thus earning the title of bestsellers.
About Neil D’Silva: He moved into full-time writing after giving up a lucrative coaching institute that he had helmed for 18 years. Influenced by his life’s journey, which initiated him into the works of Poe, Stoker, Shelley and our own Ramsay brothers, he developed a strong penchant for creating new worlds of horror. His debut novel, Maya’s New Husband, is a bestseller and has been acquired for screen adaptation. Neil conducts lectures and workshops on writing for aspiring authors. He is also the founder and Creative Director of an interschool Litfest named Lit venture. After winning accolades at the Delhi Literature Festival for a Short Story Competition, the Indian Bloggers’ Award and giving a TEDx talk on the subject of ‘The Art of Writing a Bestseller’, Neil has stamped his presence on the Indian literary world. He lives in Mumbai with his wife Anita and their two children, Gilmore and Felicia.
Why does horror as a genre attract you so much?
Perhaps the simplest answer is that I have never found any other genre so enchanting. I was a very cowardly child, but at the same time, I was fascinated to read stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I read Dracula and Frankenstein when I was in Grade 7. Also, my father used to translate movies from Hindi to English, and during this time, he translated most of the Ramsay movies as they were hugely popular. Then there was also the rumor among us kids that the building I grew up in was haunted. Somehow, all these things helped me get over my fear of the dark and of loneliness. I began to believe that horror is a very empowering genre. It empowers us against our fears. And that is what I try to explore even today through my stories.
Do you believe in the paranormal? Any experiences?
A couple of incidents did happen while I was growing up. During the summers, we used to sleep on the floor because the bed was too hot. My house was on the third floor. We had an open balcony and through that, from my sleeping position, I could see the terrace of the next wing. I was just 12 then. So, one night, I suddenly woke up. It might have been 2 or 2:30 a.m. My gaze at once fell on the terrace of the next wing, which was directly in my line of vision. And there, I saw something that quite terrified me. I saw a woman standing on the edge of the terrace wall. She was in a white saree (just like we see in the movies) and she was about to jump off. And I knew she had spotted me. Terrified, I went off to sleep, not knowing what to do.
Next morning, I was sure that it was a dream. But then we came to know that the watchman didn’t turn up the next day. Upon enquiries, it was discovered that the watchman had a major fright. A woman in a white saree had walked up to him from behind, in the middle of the night, and slapped him hard. He had the five finger marks as evidence. And then the woman had disappeared.
You can imagine how terrified I’d have been. And add to that the stories going on among us kids that our building had been built on an ancient graveyard.
Speaking about beliefs in the paranormal, I keep my mind open. I am neither a believer not a skeptic. I know that there is a lot about the universe that we still have to learn, and with the inadequate knowledge that we have, we cannot make a judgment on whether there is a life beyond death or not.
With Ringa Ringa Roses, your latest release you brought in young protagonists. Did you do it consciously?
Oh, yes! A lot of the stories in Ringa Ringa Roses reflect back on my own experiences as a kid. I was quite a coward, as I have mentioned before, and my imaginative mind had worked up many phobias. I was scared of the dark, being alone, heights, cockroaches and lizards, ghosts, dead bodies, and what not! I don’t have any of those phobias today, and I am proud that I conquered them all. This is what the stories of Ringa Ringa Roses are about too. They are about children who are trapped in various scary situations, but they come out them, fighting bravely, like heroes. Just like I did!
Do you think spirits possess the weak and vulnerable or pure at heart? This keeping in mind your characters in Ringa Ringa Roses.
I have got a better perspective of this now that I have coauthored books with famous paranormal investigators such as Jay Alani and Sarbajeet Mohanty. With their experiences and my own beliefs, I think that spirits, if they are indeed out there, do try to communicate with us and they will try to reach out to those of us who are receptive to them. That is why people who don’t believe in ghosts will never see one, but those who believe in them, even partly, will have an experience or two. It is not that these people are weak or vulnerable; it is just their belief system that makes them experience the paranormal.
I have also understood that most spirits (again with the disclaimer that if they exist) are not vengeful. They are just trapped in a world where they do not belong. They intend no harm. They want a way out. At times, they might possess living people just to vocalize or express their pain. It is because we don’t understand the other world that we associate so many stigmas with it.
But your young protagonists fight back. What message did you want to convey though them?
Not just in Ringa Ringa Roses, but in every story I have written (including Maya’s New Husband and Yakshini), my protagonists have fought back. It is just the way I see stories. I feel that the resolution of most stories lies in seeing the people win against their odds. And that’s the message: If I could fight my fears and become brave, everyone can.
Do you think women are more susceptible to being possessed? Why?
No, I don’t think so. The real-life stories that I have captured (of Jay Alani and Sarbajeet Mohanty) have an equal balance between the genders. Men need be so happy; there are equal chances of them getting targeted by ghosts too!
I think the impression that women are bigger targets comes from our movies and literature. I admit, it makes the story much richer to show a woman being possessed. Women have so many layers to them; it is a more creatively satisfying experience to encapsulate all those emotions. Men are not so expressive. Even if they were possessed, they might not behave in a way that makes a good story! So that’s why films and books show women being possessed more, and that’s from where the impression germinates.
Now your book Yakshini is about a girl who is possessed by a Yakshini. What I felt was the book talks more about ‘male gaze’ towards females than only being a paranormal story. Your take.
Very much. The reason why my books are bestsellers (as per what my readers have told me) is because my horror stories are backed up with strong storytelling. In Maya’s New Husband and Yakshini, the core story was of a woman trapped in a highly challenging situation and trying to fight back. Horror was just the vehicle with which the story was told.
The idea of Yakshini was born in my mind during a particularly shameful phase we went through in recent years, when there were many cases of rape reported from different parts of the country. It started with the Nirbhaya case. It shook me. I was uneasy for days. And a thought occurred to me, what if the girl had something within her, a supernatural force, with which she could fight back against the men who were molesting her? What if she could brutally kill them when they tried to outrage her modesty? If she did that, what would be the societal repercussions on her? That was my story of Yakshini. The supernatural agency that I gave my protagonist to fight back was a Yakshini, who we know as a demigoddess in Indian folklore.
Now let’s talk about your other books. Maya’s New Husband was your first novel. Tell us about the response it got and how it egged you on to write more.
Maya’s New Husband was the novel that started my literary journey. It is a raw, gritty tale of a middle-aged Maharashtrian woman, a schoolteacher, who falls in love and marries a man named Bhaskar Sadachari, not knowing that her husband has a dark secret. The book has no-holds-barred gory scenes. I went all out to portray the characters, especially of the antagonist, which was well-appreciated.
In fact, the book did really well. It hit Amazon India #1 in the horror category as well as was #1 on Amazon Hot New Bestsellers on the next day of its release itself. It stayed within Amazon India top 10 (horror) for close to two years. It was covered by several bloggers and reviewers and readers shared excerpts from the book. Even now, I get a lot of fan mail about the book. Not just that, the book has drawn a book-to-screen adaptation deal. And, perhaps, I am proud of this notorious little fame that the book achieved: it was even illegally translated and pirated in a neighboring country using my name on the cover! Now that is the kind of fame that cannot be beaten!
In your novel Pishacha you write about a demon falling in love with a woman. You write about ‘love’ the most powerful force that binds us. And that a lover will go to any limit to get back the love of his life. Do you think dark forces feel a pure emotion as ‘love’?
Pishacha is a purely fictional story with elements of horror, fantasy, and mythology. I wanted to project the blend of love and fear in one story, and that was how Pishacha came about. I do believe that spirits can have strong emotions, which is why they linger and make their presence felt even after so many decades. However, I’d like to confine Pishacha to a story without reading too much into it in terms of realism.
Tell us a little bit about your short story collections like The Evil Eye and the Charm, Bound in Love, Right Behind You, and Haunted. Which is your personal favorite?
I love writing short stories. They are instant gratification! They are also a way for me to stay connected with my readers between my long novels, which take time.
The Evil Eye and the Charm is a personal favorite. It tells stories of the lemon-chili charm and deals with the age-old debate between science and superstition. I love how I managed to end each story with twist endings. The collection has received praise from India and abroad, with a particular review suggesting that it should be part of Indian culture series as taught in western schools.
Haunted: Real-life Encounters with Ghosts and Spirits is another smashing favorite. It’s my big-ticket book as it is published by Penguin Random House. It is coauthored with Jay Alani, a paranormal investigator. In this book, I tell stories of Jay’s real-life investigations in ten of the most horrifying places of India, including Kuldhara, Mayong, Bhangarh, Lambi Dehar Mines and more. It’s a must-read book for paranormal horror fans.
Which do you think is easier writing short stories or a novel? Why?
Personally, short stories are easier. I rolled out the three short stories of Ringa Ringa Roses with 15 days. By the way, I wrote the book during the lockdown caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was my way of de-stressing from the bleakness all around me.
On the other hand, novels are more fun to write. Of course, there is an inordinate amount of work involved. You need to connect so many dots. But I love the process of creating characters and plots and building scenes and chapters. I love the whole experience. And, when you have the finished manuscript in your hands (which, for me, comes after 5-6 drafts), it is creative satisfaction like no other.
What do you think is the main difference between paranormal writing/beings between the West and India?
We are much more story-oriented, hands down. Indians love a good story at the end of the day, having grown up on stories fed by their grandmas right since their childhood. Even when it’s horror, just the legend or the modus operandi of the supernatural/paranormal being doesn’t satiate us. We need to have vivid characters, a brilliant plot, and everything else on our plate.
Western horror is more concept driven. It relies on shock value. Hence gore and slasher flicks become such big hits there. But they cannot fly with Indian audiences. It is not because we don’t equate with gore, but we need a strong story to substantiate it which is rooted in our culture and folklore.
Other than these you have also been part of anthologies. What can one expect in your anthology City of Screams?
City of Screams was a unique experience. It was a project undertaken by the publisher Half Baked Beans. A contest was announced for horror stories, for which I was the judge. I handpicked the stories among hundreds of submissions and finally arrived at the winning entries, which culminated into the anthology.
The best part of City of Screams was to be able to find out new writers of horror literature. Every story in the book is different from each other in style and the kind of fear it evokes. I was pleased to find that there are writers of so many subgenres of horror in India. The book has, understandably, done very well.
People love ‘horror’ but are uncomfortable to accept it. Why do you think that is?
Indians have always loved horror. A juicy scary tale is the stuff nightly conversations are made of. However, somewhere along the line, horror got a bad name. This especially happened when horror was blended with erotica. Horror was always meant for adult consumption, but now it became adult in a wholly different way. The brave children and teens who could watch scary movies earlier because they could take the scares could no longer watch it now because of the sexual content, which was often forcibly inserted.
Then there was also the fact that other genres took precedence. Romance and mythology became big hits and horror took a back seat.
However, in my experience, the audience for horror is there, and it is quite large. Though the stigma around horror still remains, our books always sell. It is just that we are still a niche genre trying to break into the mainstream.
You have always credited your wife Anita for making you a writer. Tell us more.
It was in 2014 that I started writing. Before that, I used to teach at my coaching institute. But, having done that for 18 years, I was feeling burned out. There was also this nagging writing bug in me that had begun to itch so bad! It was at that time that I discussed with my wife about it. I told her that I wanted to write, but that might mean drastic changes in our life, especially financially. She agreed in a blink, even offering to support the family financially till the time my writing dreams took hold.
Since then she has always supported my writing. The many books that have happened, along with the book to screen adaptations, could not have happened if she had not said ‘yes’ on that first occasion that I asked her about it, and if she hadn’t continued to support. It’s quite challenging to fulfil your creative dreams if you don’t have support within the family. I am glad I had that.
There is a connection between your birthday and paranormal right?
Haha! That’s some interesting trivia. I was born on Halloween day, five minutes past midnight. So I guess, some things are meant to be!
What should we expect from you next?
I have two commissioned projects that I am working on now. The first is with Hachette India titled The Spirits Talk to Me and the other is with Rupa Publications titled Ghost Whispers. Both these books are co-authored with paranormal investigator, Sarbajeet Mohanty, and are very different in their approach. I have also recently signed on for a web series, which will be an anthology show of horror stories based on the folklore of different regions of India. And, as they say, a writer’s work never stops. I am busy writing many more books to keep my readers engrossed in the world of horror literature!
We thank you Neil, for this wonderful insight into this fascinating genre. May you achieve even greater success.
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